When you’re starting to feel the strain of self-isolation and social distancing, a drink or two might sound like the perfect stress- and boredom-reliever. Drinking during a pandemic, however, calls for some extra discretion.
Since the onset of the coronavirus crisis in early 2020, people have been encouraged to regularly wash their hands and use hand sanitizer—for the latter, particularly sanitizers containing alcohol. Not too long ago ago, a Facebook post went viral for showing a letter allegedly published by Saint Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City which states that “consuming alcoholic beverages may help to reduce the risk of infection by the novel coronavirus…” and recommending vodka for “drinking, cleaning and sanitizing.”
Unsurprisingly, the hospital disproved the authenticity of the letter soon after it hit the Internet with spokeswoman Lindsey Stich claiming: “It’s not authentic and it’s not true at all.” The World Health Organization was also quick to release a coronavirus myth-busting article.
While drinking alcohol is definitely not a valid way to rid yourself of the coronavirus, for people who have spent almost a month in home isolation and are now struggling with cabin fever, the contents of the liquor cabinet might look increasingly attractive as a way to ease stress levels or simply deal with boredom. However, numerous studies have shown that high levels of alcohol consumption during a pandemic like this one could actually make you more susceptible to the novel coronavirus.
Myths Vs. Facts
First of all, let’s get back to the “alcohol kills viruses” idea. Now, the average alcohol content of alcoholic beverages is around a 20-45 percent; vodka, for example, averages at around 40 percent. NHS Consultant Paediatric Emergency Physician Dr. Ranj Singh wrote in an article for Al Jazeera that the coronavirus could only be killed with anything that contains at least 60 percent ethyl alcohol or 70 percent isopropyl alcohol—which is what you’ll find in hand washes, hand sanitizers and various industrial-grade liquids. In short, the virus can only be killed by extremely high alcohol content, which should only be found in products meant for sanitizing.
Moving on to drinking in general, a 2015 article titled “Alcohol and The Immune System,” shows how drinking might make you prone to contracting infections. According to the article, drinking too much alcohol negatively affects key immune cells in the lungs and can damage epithelial cells on the lungs’ surface—which is exactly what the coronavirus targets. The article notes that “often, the alcohol-provoked lung damage goes undetected until a second insult, such as a respiratory infection, leads to more severe lung diseases.”
Additionally, assistant professor at Loyola University Health Systems in Illinois Majid Afshar, MD. said that binge drinking (meaning having 4 or 5 drinks or more) can disrupt the body’s “ability to mount an adequate immune response to a stressful situation, such as impeding a healthy response to the coronavirus.” Basically, high amounts of alcohol in a person’s body can impair signalling proteins known as cytokines, considered to be “important fighters” in the immune system’s cellular arsenal.
Will Drinking Make Things Worse?
Another warning against drinking during a crisis is that while alcohol initially helps us relax, it can also make you even more anxious afterwards. According to an article written by three health professionals, alcohol releases chemicals in the brain that block anxiety . But since our brain likes to keep things in balance, after drinking, it reduces the amount of these chemicals to try to return to the pre-drinking balance which, in turn, increases feelings of anxiety .
This is why the World Health Organization advises people to drink “in moderation,” while those who do not drink “should not start drinking in an attempt to prevent the infection.” On the other hand, the NIAAA advises to limit consumption to no more than two drinks per day for men and one for women.
In closing, perhaps in these times, it would be best for us to remind ourselves that all this is a temporary situation then try other, less risky distractions: Exercise, rework your diet, keep tabs on your friends through old-school phone calls or online video conferences and stay safe.
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